Hamamelis Virginiana is a large shrub with oval leaves and yellow flowers. This deciduous plant that's native to North America is used to make witch hazel, a popular ingredient in skin care products. Witch hazel is made by distilling the bark, twigs and leaves of the Hamamelis Virginiana plant to produce witch hazel extract. During the distillation process, alcohol is added. Therefore, most commercial witch hazel has an alcohol content of about 15%. The final product is a clear liquid with no odor and a moderate amount of natural tannins. When steam distillation is used to make witch hazel extract, some of the tannins are removed, and this may destroy some of the benefits of the product.
Witch hazel has had a variety of medicinal uses throughout history. It's been used for centuries to treat a variety of ailments including cuts, burns, insect bites, skin wounds, diaper rash and hemorrhoids. It has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties that make it useful for relieving itching and irritation and for shrinking hemorroidal tissues. In addition, it has an astringent effect that helps to tighten blood vessels and reduce bleeding after a cut or scrape.
In addition, some people use witch hazel orally to remedy other conditions such as diarrhea, vomiting, fevers and colds, although there's no evidence to support its benefits or safety when taken by mouth. It's important not to take commercial preparations of witch hazel by mouth since they may contain isopropyl alcohol, and witch hazel is meant for external use. Even witch hazel that doesn't contain alcohol can be irritating to the stomach due to the natural tannins it contains.
In addition to treating cuts and skin wounds, witch hazel has astringent properties, meaning it helps to temporarily tighten tissues. The astringent effect of witch hazel is primarily due to the natural tannins it contains. Its astringent properties has made it a popular ingredient in commercial astringents and toners to be used after cleansing to remove residual oils and make-up. Other skin care and personal care products that may contain witch hazel are facial cleansers, moisturizers, aftershaves, deodorants and acne treatment products.
Because of its astringent properties, witch hazel may be beneficial for people with oily skin and acne. In addition, witch hazel contains other natural compounds including proanthocyanins, catechins and flavonoids that give it cell-protective antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. One small study published in the European Journal of Clinical Pharmacology showed that witch hazel may be beneficial for treating eczema, a common, inflammatory skin condition that causes itching and redness, although more research is needed. That witch hazel would be effective isn't surprising since the ingredient has natural anti-inflammatory properties.
Despite witch hazel's benefits as an astringent and for treating minor skin wounds and hemorrhoids, some people experience skin irritation when they use it regularly. The skin irritation seems to come from the tannins and isopropyl alcohol in some preparations of witch hazel. Some people also experience allergic reactions to witch hazel when they use it topically. In some cases, using alcohol-free witch hazel eliminates the problem of skin irritation. Alcohol-free forms of witch hazel are widely available.
Witch hazel is safe in the quantities found in skin care and personal care products. Other than mild skin irritation, usually due to alcohol in the product, witch hazel has few side effects. It's also a low cost ingredient that's plant derived. With all of these features, it's not surprising that witch hazel is popular in skin care products. Many people with oily skin and acne use it after cleansing with good results.
All in all, witch hazel plays a role in treating a variety of skin problems from minor cuts and wounds to oily skin and acne. The Food and Drug Administration has approved it as an ingredient in skin and personal care products based on its excellent safety profile when used topically. Although some alternative health practitioners recommend taking purified versions of witch hazel without alcohol orally to treat certain conditions, this is not its intended purpose. It is safe and effective for topical use and as an ingredient in skin care and cosmetic products.